Reducing harm caused by alcohol

Minimum pricing

What is minimum unit pricing?

A minimum price for alcohol sets the lowest price an alcoholic drink can be sold for.

In May 2018, the minimum price per unit of alcohol was set at 50p per unit of alcohol in Scotland.

Increasing the price of alcohol is one of the most effective ways to reduce how much people drink and prevent problems caused by alcohol. The aim of MUP was to reduce alcohol-related harm, by:

  • reducing, in a targeted way, the consumption of alcohol by people whose consumption is hazardous or harmful (drinking over the low risk drinking guideline of 14 units per week), and
  • reducing the overall population level of consumption of alcohol.

Minimum unit pricing works

Public Health Scotland (PHS) led an independent evaluation of minimum unit pricing. It was one of the most thoroughly evaluated policies ever in Scotland.

Key evaluation findings:

  • It is estimated that MUP has saved 156 lives and averted 499 hospital admissions per year on average.
  • MUP has reduced overall population consumption in Scotland by 3%, driven by a reduction in off-trade alcohol sales.
  • MUP has reduced hazardous and harmful drinking, as people who bought the most alcohol before MUP reduced their purchasing the most.
  • MUP has reduced inequalities in alcohol harm as the lives saved by MUP have been among the 40% of people living in the most deprived areas.
  • There have been high levels of compliance by retailers and no significant negative impacts on alcohol producers or sellers.

Minimum unit pricing must be maintained and uprated to 65p per unit

While the results from the evaluation have been very positive, the dual effects of increased inflation and changes in our drinking habits during the pandemic have significantly eroded the impact that MUP has had.

New research from the University of Sheffield published in September 2023 has shown that even if alcohol consumption returns to pre-pandemic levels, we will see around 663 more deaths, over 8,500 more hospital admissions, and an additional £10.9million in NHS hospital costs over the following 20 years.

It also estimated that alcohol consumption in Scotland was 2.2% higher in 2023 than it would have been if the MUP level had risen with inflation.

Increasing the minimum unit price will give Scotland the best chance to turn the tide of alcohol harm, reduce the death toll and alleviate pressure on our health service and health professionals.

In 2021, Alcohol Focus Scotland, SHAAP, and 28 other organisations, including health and children’s charities and medical Royal colleges, wrote to Ministers to urge them to increase the minimum unit price from 50p per unit to 65p per unit. This is because the policy has been affected by inflation and increasing the price could save more lives.

Alongside an initial increase to make good on inflation, an automatic mechanism should be put in place to link the minimum unit price to a measure of affordability into the future, as proposed by the NCD Alliance Scotland.

The Public Health Scotland evaluation and research from University of Sheffield show how this is needed more than ever.

What next?

The Scottish Government have recommended that MUP be maintained and increased to 65p per unit. The consultation closed on 22 November 2023.

Following a consultation analysis, the Scottish Government is expected to bring forward two pieces of secondary legislation in early 2024, one to continue the policy and one to increase the price to 65p per unit.

The Health, Social Care and Sport Committee will likely take evidence on these Orders in early 2024, with a vote in Parliament in April 2024.  

Any new price will take effect from 1 May 2024. Separate primary legislation would be required to introduce an automatic uprating mechanism for MUP.

Ahead of the sunset clause we will be campaigning to ensure that not only do we keep this life saving policy, but that it is optimised to make sure it works well, and we can improve the lives of people in Scotland.

Why is minimum pricing needed?

Alcohol is still much more affordable than it was in the 1980s, mostly due to cheap prices in supermarkets and other off-sales where we now buy most of our alcohol. 

This increased affordability has resulted in people drinking more, and in turn, more alcohol-related health and social problems. For example, there are three times as many people dying from alcohol now than in the 1980s. See here for more information on the health and social harm caused by alcohol in Scotland.

Despite the positive effect of minimum unit pricing, which was recently found to have saved 268 lives each year since it was introduced, Scotland has still seen a dramatic increase in alcohol deaths over the past few years. This significant rise in loss of life was likely caused by changing drinking habits during the pandemic, in particular among heavy drinkers, alongside reduced access to services. This is why AFS alongside 35 charities and medical bodies are calling for an emergency response to alcohol deaths, including by uprating MUP to 65p per unit.

There is extensive evidence showing that when price goes up, consumption goes down (and vice versa). Minimum pricing is an effective policy because it targets those who experience the most harm, whilst having very little effect on moderate drinkers.